x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Baghdad rocked by new wave of violence

Mid-morning market blast increases tensions a few days before the US troop pull-back and calls into question Iraq's ability to defend itself.

BAGHDAD // At least 13 people were killed yesterday when a bomb exploded in a crowded Baghdad market, the latest in a series of mass casualty attacks that have claimed scores of lives and left hundreds wounded just days before a planned US troop pull-back. A motorcycle laden with explosives and packed with nails and ball-bearings, designed to make the blast even more deadly, blew up just after 9am. More than 50 people were reported wounded. It was not the first time the popular motorbike market has been bombed and further called into question the ability of Iraqi forces to defend against insurgents after American troops withdraw from city centres on Tuesday. "This is supposed to be a safe area, there are Iraqi police and army everywhere," said Mohammad al Roubaiee, a 31-year-old trader in the market. "This proves that the Iraqi government cannot protect us, the political parties are too busy fighting against one another to defend ordinary people." Mr al Roubaiee was at his motorcycle shop when the bomb went off. Two of his friends, fellow bike vendors, were killed. "We are in the heart of Baghdad, and we have been attacked before, so if this place is not safe, where can we find any safety?" he said. "Insurgents, the terrorists, got their bomb in easily and I had to see my innocent friends burnt and torn to pieces in front of my eyes "This shows the government is weak, the security forces are weak, we are close to chaos again. The Americans may be departing too soon, the Iraqi forces are not capable yet." More than 200 people have been killed in the past eight days, in a wave of violence that has broken across Iraq; there have been deadly strikes in northern, central, western, eastern and southern areas of the country, even in places that up until now had been largely quiet. Since 2007, a US troop surge and a government campaign to defeat Shiite militants, combined with the Sunni tribal awakening which saw former allies of al Qa'eda turn against them, has helped improve the general security situation in Iraq. Although political violence of one sort or another - bombings, kidnappings, shootings - has continued on a daily basis, there was a real and growing sense among many Iraqis that the worst days were over. These latest attacks have chipped away at that hard won confidence and have perceptibly begun to undermine Iraqis' newborn faith in the government. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki this week sought to convince the nation its military and police are up to the job of suppressing an apparently revitalised insurgency. "We assure you of Iraqi forces' readiness for the mission, despite some security violations, and we assure you that we are now more stable and steady," he said on Thursday, a day after 62 people were killed by a bomb in Sadr City, a Shiite area in northeastern Baghdad. Most of the victims of recent attacks have been Shiite civilians. Mr al Maliki said militants were trying to reignite a sectarian civil war, undermine the political process and prevent Iraq from regaining true independence. Tuesday, the day US troops are due to withdraw from urban areas and end their direct combat role here, has been declared a national holiday, in order to mark what Mr al Maliki has called a "great victory" for Iraq. Despite the attacks, both the Iraqi government and American military have insisted they will stick to the pull-back timetable, although an agreement has been reached that will allow US forces to remain in some neighbourhoods of Mosul, the divided and dangerous northern city that has seen some of Iraq's worst violence. American troops and air support will remain on call after the June 30 deadline and will continue to train and mentor Iraqi troops. Under a US-Iraqi agreement, all American forces are due to withdraw entirely from Iraq by the end of 2011. nlatif@thenational.ae